Woman trail running outdoors

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Interested In Trail Running? Here’s What to Know Before You Try It

Keep these tips in mind before you venture out on your next trail or road run.

By Natalie Arroyo CamachoJune 27, 2024


One of the best things about running is that you can do it anywhere and anytime. But when you're faced with options like the treadmill versus outdoor running, or trail running versus road running, it can be tough to choose. (Unless of course, the weather report has made the decision for you.) 

Recently, there has been growing interest in trail running—nearly 15 million people participated in trail runs in 2023 according to the SFIA’s 2024 Topline Participation Report,—a 12.3 percent increase in participation in one year. And according to a 2024 Allied Market Research Report, the trail running shoes market is expected to reach $12.4 billion by 2032 (it was valued at $7.3 billion in 2022).

Both road running and trail running have their merits, but there are key differences that may help you decide which is best for you on any given day. Trail-curious? Read on to learn more about the benefits of trail running vs. road running, common misconceptions about trail running, and how to start trail running.

Is Trail Running for You?

That said, some folks think that this off-road activity isn’t for them. “I think people can be afraid of trail running,” says Peloton instructor Matt Wilpers. More than anything, Matt wants to reassure people that there’s no reason to be intimidated by trail running. “It’s great for runners of all ability levels.”

Physical therapist Lisa Mitro—who works with road runners and trail runners—echoes this sentiment. “Trail running doesn't have to be a very intense event. It doesn’t even have to be that different from road running,” says Mitro. “If you can find a dirt path, or a trail that's not super intense, then you can give it a try.”

Trail Running vs. Road Running: Key Differences

There are a handful of key differences between trail running and road running. According to Matt and Mitro, these include the terrain, stride, equipment, goal mileage, and possible increased risk of injury.

You’ll Feel the Impact of Different Terrain

Mitro says that there are usually more uphills, downhills, rocks, and uneven ground when you’re on the trail versus on the road. “It takes a lot more focus, so you want to make sure that your foot placement is safe enough so that you don’t miss your step—which means that you’re usually looking down,” she adds. 

Matt notes that trails are much softer terrain than roads and streets. “Softer surfaces can make holding speed harder, as some of the energy being exerted to go fast is being absorbed or taken away,” he says.

Your Stride Length Will Vary

Your stride will also be a lot different on the trail than it is on the road or pavement, says Mitro. “The stride is going to be a lot shorter and have a quicker cadence because there’s more technicality with foot placement,” says Mitro. For example, if you’re on a mountain, you need to make sure you’re not tripping on a rock or slipping on loose gravel.

Matt adds that “a relatively flat dirt or gravel trail can open up the stride and help you find some speed.” However, if there’s a lot of incline or tons of hills, Matt agrees that your stride will likely be shorter and quicker as you hit the uphill.

You'll Want to Switch Up Your Sneakers

“Similar to off-road tires on a truck, there is typically more aggressive tread on the bottom of trail shoes—giving them the ability to dig into mud, dirt, or gravel for better grip,” says Matt. “These shoes also typically have more ankle support in order to accommodate a wide variety of terrain versus just simply a flat road.” The takeaway here? Don’t use your road running shoes on the trail. As Matt said, trail shoes have better traction and ankle support to prevent you from slipping or getting hurt.

Your Mileage Goals May Change

Running 10 miles on the road doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to hit that mark on the trail. “If you’re starting to trail run, I would start with shorter distances to allow your body to get acclimated more gradually,” recommends Matt. This isn’t to say that your fitness won’t translate on the trail. It’s just that, going back to the terrain and its technicality, it’s better to err on the side of caution. The incline could affect the total mileage you’re able to complete. 

Your Injury Risk Could Increase

According to Mitro, people who do their running on the trail are more likely to have foot, knee, and ankle injuries. “These are more traumatic injuries, like rolling or breaking your ankle and more stress on your knees,” she adds. This is because of the incline of the trail as well as the risk that your foot won’t land as you intended. As a result, you may want to focus more on ankle strengthening and mobility work to help prevent injuries on the trail.

The Benefits of Trail Running

Mitro says that the first benefit of trail running is that you’re less stressed and more focused on your running. To be sure, the mental health pros back her up. According to a report from the American Psychological Association, spending time in green spaces—like forests or trails—can improve our mental health and sharpen our cognition. Plus, having a more technical terrain helps you be present instead of letting your mind wander.

How to Start Trail Running

You Can Find a Trail Near You

As Mitro reminds us, not all trails are hilly—and they don’t have to be in order to count as trail running. Let’s say your neighborhood park has a dirt loop around it. That’s a trail, and it wouldn’t be much different from your road runs. Of course, when you’re running uphill, the intensity increases. But it doesn’t have to.

You’ll Need to Take Extra Safety Precautions

There are certain dangers when you’re on the road, namely vehicles. If you live in a city, you may also face bikes or crowds (among other potential issues). On the trail, however, there are different things to be wary of. For instance, says Mitro, you might encounter wildlife. These might be innocuous, like insects, rabbits, or deers. They might also be dangerous, though—like if you run into snakes, bears, or coyotes. In this case, it’s good to brush up on hiking decorum. 

You’ll also want to ditch the headphones if you’re on a trail. “This allows you to hear cyclists as well as the wildlife around you,” says Mitro. Additionally, it’s wise to run trails with friends whenever possible and avoid running alone—especially if the trail is more deserted. If you get hurt or lost, it’s usually more difficult to get help on a trail than on a road. If running with other people isn’t a possibility, Mitro suggests letting someone know where you’re going.

Your Form Shouldn’t Change

Even though the terrain affects your stride, it shouldn’t change your form. It’s still important for your back to be straight and your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles to be aligned. “Maybe the only thing is that you might be looking down a little bit more,” says Mitro.

You Should Bring a Lot of Fuel

When you’re running around the city, you can stop by a store and get a quick snack—but there aren’t any stores on most trails. “You need to make sure you bring plenty of fluids and nutrition with you [on the trail],” Matt says.


Featured Peloton Instructor

Matt Wilpers Instructor Headshot

Matt Wilpers

A former Division I distance runner with 10 years of coaching experience, Matt brings an encouraging energy grounded in athleticism to his teaching style.


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